On Lack of Self-Confidence: Women’s Presence at Art Academies in Poland

The pretext to discuss women’s self-confidence is the study Little Chance to Advance? – a report from an inquiry into the presence of women at state art academies in Poland, conducted by the Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation. The idea for the project was inspired by our observations concerning disproportions between the number of women studying and teaching at art academies. The report summarizes an inquiry conducted in Poland. It describes artistic circles, and in particular – the environment of visual art academies, but does the studied phenomenon really concern only this limited sliver of society in a single country in the middle of Europe?

The report touches upon numerous aspects. In this article, I would like to focus on selected threads which do signal fundamental problems in the light of women’s self-confidence.

Just as we agree that women should be allowed to raise the same subjects, work in the same techniques and timeframe as men, we should also understand the damage caused by the argument stating that a woman is inherently different and made for other pursuits. Compensation and recognition for her work should be the same. And gender must not be a factor here. At the very beginning it should be noted that many challenges fine art academies face nowadays have impact on all students, but gender seems to be a particular criterion. Thus women are even more severely affected by the flaws of the system.

The observation concerning the disproportion in the environment of art academies, the number of female students and teachers is as common, as the assumption that this is simply the way things are. Apart from minor progress, the situation can be considered constant and has remained unchanged for decades. Data from 2013 shows that 77% of academy students in Poland are women, yet they make up only 22% of the hired women professors. While it could be claimed that the number of women at technical universities is even smaller, such an answer is not a valid argument for our study. The statement is correct; however, the disproportion between women employed at technical universities and their female students is smaller; there is a continuity between the university as a place of learning, and as a place of employment. Fine art academies are an extreme case, where all proportions are disturbed and no logical patterns can be distinguished, which incited our curiosity in the first place and prompted us to ask about the factors that determine such a state of affairs.

In order to better understand the report, we should dedicate a moment to presenting our research methodology. What we wanted to achieve is to find appropriate tools to ensure that despite our earlier observations, knowledge and awareness of the problem, we would be able to present it in a reliable, objective and professional manner. The research team included four members with varying education and research background (Anna Gromada, Dorka Budacz, Juta Kawalerowicz and myself). The study was conducted in major Polish institutions offering visual art training (9 visual art academies). Data has been collected from three sources: freedom of information requests, surveys prepared by the Foundation, and in-depth interviews. Almost 1,000 surveys have been collected (out of 9,000 students of all academies). Experienced researchers have conducted 32 in-depth interviews with fine art academy students and teaching staff.

Based on our research, we discerned three sets of hypotheses that could answer the question: why is there a gender discrepancy between these two career stages – being a student and being a teacher – comparable only to that observed in theological schools? We verified the following hypotheses: (1) aspirations, priorities and strategies; (2) psychological factors; (3) relations between students and academic teachers: positive and negative stimuli and their significance. One of the most striking threads of this research, and one that stood out in each set of the analyzed hypotheses, turned out to be the issue of self-confidence, or lack thereof, in women.


Everyone who has ever come into contact with the art world can list features characteristic for the people involved in it. Visibly artists often lead a different life than an average person; they are also more eccentric and sensitive to the reality around them. We are more tolerant towards such people (artists are allowed more) and we even expect them to be different from an average citizen. Very often artists sacrifice a lot in order to complete their artistic goals. What should be emphasized here is that it is precisely due to their individual particularity (not their gender) that artists have different needs and values. We know that based on our own research in comparison with other studies prepared by opinion polls in Poland.

The research revealed that it is possible to distinguish even more common features shared by the members of the art world, regardless of their gender. In the report, we have presented data which confirms that women and men also have similar aspirations. When asked about the most attractive prospects awaiting them after graduation, both groups indicated the same prospects as two of the most attractive outcomes: being an active artist and working in an art-related profession. The lowest ranking were retraining and employment in a profession unrelated to art. It turned out that all students, regardless of their gender, have similar work priorities: they ranked the highest importance to prospects of three proposed factors: development, strong self-reliance and high earnings.

Based on the obtained data, we can see that “homemaking” is an attractive future prospect neither for female nor male students of visual art academies. It seems that the reasons why artists are less interested in starting a family than an average person could be found in the contention that artists (both women and men) have different needs, values, aspirations and priorities. Really puzzling is the fact that 58% of female and 52% of male students say they couldn’t be able to resign from their artistic aspirations even for having their own families. The difference between the genders in this case amounts to as much as 6 percentage points and in connection with other answers from our report could indicate that it is women who are less willing to start a family. That result dispels the main myth that women want to have families, and that’s why they resign from their aspirations. Analyzing the answers given by students and employees (of various levels) shows the universal or dominant way of thinking. It is a priori assumed that the woman will (should) start a family. This is ascribed to them as a priority. It is believed to be the natural course of events regardless of the particular individual’s willingness or other aspirations. The woman will have a family, she will take care of it and devote all her time to this purpose. That perhaps she wants to start a family, but – like men – she does not need to give up her current life, aspirations or work, is hardly ever considered. Hardly anyone even thinks that she could simply not want children or a family. Or perhaps she would like to have them, but fulfilling her artistic goals is more important, and she feels compelled to choose, because “it’s impossible to have both.”

Our research shows that nowadays, young women are ambitious, determined and hard-working. They are often aware of the fact that due to their gender they must work harder to prove they can make it; they believe that merit should be the deciding factor when it comes to professional advancement. Yet neither the number of women at academies, nor the time they devote to studying (our research revealed women spend more time on learning) translate into their status at art academies, or even to the number of scholarships awarded to them (which, according to our research, can be a factor later impacting the received offers to become employed as an assistant at the academy). Men receive assistant job offers more frequently, even though they are three times less numerous within the student body.

Would it seem that the current state of affairs– a disproportionately small number of women employed at academies in comparison to the number of female students, for example– simply proves the inferiority of women? Or is there something fundamentally wrong with the structure?


In theory, the plans, aspirations and priorities of students we have studied (both women and men) are very similar. The differences between them can be noted in answers to follow-up questions, namely their confidence in the realization of particular plans. This is where we observed significant differences between women and men.

We have to remember that self-assessment affects our actions and their effectiveness. What may be cause for particular concern here, is the deterioration of students’ mental well-being during the course of their studies: they lose joy and energy for action, as well as the sense that their studies foster their development. While this decline is significant for both genders, it is noteworthy that the decrease in mental state is more considerable in women than in men, which can influence the perception of chances for professional advancement at visual art academies and further career choices. The research clearly indicates that while male students, who are three times less numerous at academies, are confident, women have a hard time believing in themselves. A particularly large discrepancy was visible when we asked about the lack of confidence: 22% of female students stated that currently they do not have confidence in their own abilities.

After the presentation of the report Little Chance to Advance? and the findings of the research in Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw in late 2015, I was approached by a young woman, a freshmen student of the Academy of Fine Art, who told me that what we had said in our presentation about women’s self-confidence is familiar to her, and she witnessed it at her faculty. She added that she was absolutely sure that all the doubts she or her fellow female students had, or things they pondered, had never even crossed her colleagues, male students’ minds.

It should be emphasized that women often experience unfriendly treatment from other women. Our research revealed that the most forms of support are received by men from other men, and the least by women from other women. This fact provides food for thought and deserves a separate inquiry.

Our research indicates what is characteristic for a certain part of the teaching staff at visual art academies: what stereotypes or ingrained myths about women, and what harmful mechanisms they apply in their assessment and everyday work with young women. It is important to stress at this point that we are describing a current phenomenon, but we want to emphasize that it involves only a certain part of academic staff, not all professors. But the attitudes described are particularly damaging to young women, their sense of both independence and belonging, and their confidence in their own skills and abilities. They are being marginalized and excluded from the group of “artists,” as artists would never do such things as changing diapers; they are not invited to gatherings outside the academy, as men (male professors who constitute the majority of the teaching staff) invite mainly other men (students who constitute but a minority of the student body); it is assumed that there is no point in investing in women, as they will surely be raising a family soon enough. It is the fastest way to undermine the self-confidence of young women studying at visual art academies. Unfortunately, instead of providing support, professors often dent female students’ self-confidence, question their abilities, the reasons behind their choices, and their readiness to tackle certain subjects, with remarks like “You? But you’re a girl!” (a real-life example of a statement from professors, even young ones who theoretically should be more open-minded and liberal in terms of their outlook on life.) What about the female students who are told at the very start of their studies by their professors that they will be making art in between changing diapers and cooking dinners? What are they to think? What should they do when the professor tells them that at most they should aspire to becoming a CEO’s wife? What about those instructors who bluntly tell female students that they won’t make it, because it’s not for girls?

The specific nature of visual art academies lies in personalized training, a special master-apprentice relationship between students and their instructors. What image of their own person and their prospects can these young women have?

In these circumstances, one can but wonder why women are admitted to these academies at all, or why aren’t there already separate studios for them.

One in three students, both female and male declare they had heard unfriendly or hostile comments or encountered such behaviors from their instructors; one in twenty experienced unwelcome sexual behaviors. The most significant difference between both groups can be noted in uncalled for comments concerning their physical appearance, body and eroticism: they were experienced by one in five women and one in ten men.

Men also have a much broader range of role models within their gender – artists in their field of art. The question from many years ago – why are there no women among the great artists – remains valid to this day. The findings suggest that an average male student receives more positive stimuli from the academic staff than an average female student, regardless of whether such a stimulus takes the form of professional or artistic advice, an invitation to an extracurricular gathering or trip, close relationship, individual tutelage, references, assistance in securing employment or commission, introduction into art circles, or help in becoming an assistant at the academy.

Women do not take up challenges when their initiative is met with disapproval. It is lack of support and self-confidence which is why they so rarely “make it.” Sexist remarks and treating their plans and actions disparagingly affect young women’s self-confidence, and this, in turn, impacts all other aspects of their lives, including their professional success. Our research reveals how much is still to be done, since young women themselves claim they see no reason to study gender disproportions at academies and they honestly believe women are inferior to men and better suited for other pursuits – these sentences are from our research.

After the report’s publication, the research team prepared recommendations regarding what we believe should be done in order to improve the situation when it comes to the women’s presence at art academies. Our guidelines included: fighting discrimination and old boys’ clubs, monitoring decision-making bodies to ensure rotation in commissions and transparency of conditions and appointments, dispelling myths, building women’s self-confidence, and appointing a plenipotentiary for gender equality at Polish academies.


Anna_Walewska_photo_Marcin_Oliva_SotoIn 2012 Anna Walewska graduated from the Art History department at the University of Warsaw. Her research interests include mainly contemporary art and film history as well as women’s issues. During her studies she completed the internship at the Institute of Industrial Design (Warsaw 2008) and Zachęta – National Gallery of Art (Warsaw 2010). From 2008 to 2010 she worked at the Department of Education of the National Museum in Warsaw. Since 2010 she has been working with Katarzyna Kozyra, initially as her personal assistant. Her professional experience includes work as an editor and business manager. Anna is curator and producer of artistic and film projects, and Director of the Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation, which she has been creating from its outset.